Please join me at my new internet home, here, for continued reflections on Life in General.
In the late 1960’s, while most of my childhood friends were busy playing with Barbie dolls or stuffed animals, I was playing Magazine. I holed up in my dad’s little office in our basement, the Smith Corona electric typewriter humming away, while I tapped out “articles” for the Magazine I pretended to publish.
Fast forward 40 years to March 9, 2006, my 50th birthday. I’d never quite given up on those writing and publishing dreams, despite years spent involved with a multitude of unrelated work and activity. Thanks to the wonders of the world wide web, there was suddenly a ready made platform available to me. So, as a birthday gift to myself, I dusted off my writing aspirations, logged onto Blogger. com, and created Becca’s Byline, a “magazine” devoted to my reflections on life in general and my own in particular.
During the years I’ve written here (and in two subsequent blogs, Bookstack and Write On Wednesday), I’ve not only honed my writing skills on almost 3000 posts, but made an infinite number of connections with people all over the world, connections which have enriched my life both on and off line.
Almost eight years later, I find it’s time to put The Byline to bed for the last time and turn the page onto a new website. Although I’ve been writing for what seems my entire life, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to identify myself as a writer, and this new website is in celebration of that fact. It will still be my internet home for continued reflections on Life in General, which includes my Reading Life, Writing Life, and Home Life. But it will also be a platform for the larger writing projects that swirl in my head: a memoir, a novel, a collection of essays.
I thank all of you who have read my posts at Becca’s Byline, who have left encouraging comments, who have become my friends. If you’ve followed me here, I hope you’ll follow me in my new space, too, as I continue writing my way through life in general and my own in particular.
My father loved Christmas. His generous spirit delighted in gift-giving, and especially in finding creative ways to present the gift. There was often a big “un-veiling” involved – one year he bought my son a pint-sized 4-wheeler and rigged up a concealing cover that Brian lifted off with a pulley. I recall searching through a huge cardboard box filled with scrunched up newspapers and a carbide tools from his shop, finally unearthing a slender box that contained a diamond tennis bracelet. And one year he presented me with an autographed, hardcover copy of Arthur Hailey’s book, Wheels. He stood in line for hours to get it, and must have told Hailey about my aspirations to be a writer, because it was inscribed, “Good luck with your writing, Rebecca.” I was 14 years old at the time.
As we opened and enjoyed our lavish Christmas presents, he often recalled his own boyhood Christmas, which consisted of a box from the Goodfellows containing a pair of socks, an orange, and sometimes a rubber ball. “That orange was the best thing I ever tasted,” he said. As a pampered only child, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to get only an orange- something I had every day – for a Christmas present. Nor could I fathom the kind of life my Dad lived as a child -where there was never quite enough food for all six children, where shoes were handed down from one brother to the next and resoled with cardboard, where he went without prescription eyeglasses even though he was severely near-sighted because there was no money to get them.
My father was a self-made man, the kind of man who symbolizes everything America stands for. The son of Armenian immigrants, he left high school in his junior year to fight in The Great War. When he returned, he learned a trade and, at the age of 30, started his own business. For the next 30 years, he ran a very successful tool and die company, a company successful enough to put oranges on our table every single day and diamond bracelets under our Christmas tree. He was proud of that, and rightfully so, and nothing made him happier than sharing his good fortune with his family.
Christmas was never the same after my parents divorce and my father’s move to Florida. Those first few years were especially devastating. Not only was he gone from our family, but we learned he had a new family to celebrate with. I would sometimes find my mother sobbing in the aisles of the grocery store, heartbroken by tinny strains of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” playing on the overhead speakers.
Over the next decade, I learned to survive Christmas without my Dad around. I missed his gag gifts, missed the packages he wrapped for me in the color comics from the newspaper. I missed seeing him at my concerts, missed him at our dinner table where there was always more than enough food to go around. In 2005 my Dad and I re-connected after being estranged for some years, and we often saw each other during the holiday season when Jim and I went to our house in Florida.
But of course it wasn’t the same.
This is the first Christmas without my Dad being in this world, but it is not the first Christmas I’ve spent without him in my life. Still, I find myself grieving the loss all over again, knowing the finality of it this time. One more piece of my little family puzzle is gone, a puzzle I imagine being like those made for preschoolers, with only three or four big pieces. When one of those pieces disappears, a huge gaping hole remains.
I’ve been trying to fill that hole with music and visits with friends, with writing in my journal early in the mornings, with soft music at dusk and shimmery white lights on a small Christmas tree. I’ve been losing myself in good books, dreaming about what the new year might bring. I find moments of delight in pictures and videos of my Grandson which I play over and over because they always bring a quick, happy smile.
One of the things I valued most about my Dad was his constant cheerfulness and positive attitude. He was very sanguine about life, and he believed in happiness and good times and doing what you enjoyed. When people tell a bereaved person that their loved one “wouldn’t want them to be unhappy,” I know that’s true of my father.
I’m searching for happiness wherever I can find it – in twinkling lights and candle flame, in strains of beautiful music, in my Grandson’s sweet voice. Just for a while, I set aside those things that worry me, and let myself enjoy life everything that’s beautiful about my life right now. I believe that’s a gift he would want me to give myself this Christmas.
So I unwrap it from the layers of colored paper and revel in it.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
No matter what age we are, we all have really high expectations for Christmas,don’t we? Those expectations are what’s behind our frantic searches for the perfect gifts, the detailed meal planning and baking extravaganzas, the ever-more spectacular displays of lights that brighten dark December skies in our otherwise quiet neighborhoods.
We have so many hopes and dreams for this holiday we’ve come to think of as magical. When we’re young, those dreams are as simple as shiny toy cars or pretty baby dolls. But as we age, the hopes for the holidays become more complex. We hope to mend a torn relationship, we dream about better health for ourselves, we wish for more fulfilling jobs or more time to pursue our passions. We wonder which of our aging loved ones might be celebrating their last Christmas this very year.
Joy isn’t always easy for me to find, even (maybe especially) during this season. It’s cold outside, the stores are crowded and confusing, I’m tired from rehearsals and concerts. Plus, I’m always missing somebody – when I’m in Michigan, I miss my son and his family. When I’m in Texas, I miss my mother and my friends. This year I will be missing my Dad in a permanent way that will never change.
Still, tonight as I sit in my little upstairs office and look out over the colorful twinkling lights scattered down our street, I wonder. Maybe I expect too much of this whole Christmas thing. Maybe joy would come more readily if I adjusted my expectations. It’s so easy to get swept away by media hype and commercialism, by the stories we hear from friends and co-workers about their holiday plans and parties, by happy memories of Christmases gone by that can never be re-created. We feel as if we must have those things, do those things in order to truly experience the holiday in all its glory.
The truth is, if we’re living and breathing, if we have a warm home that we love, if everyone in our family is at least relatively healthy, than why shouldn’t we be joyful? I don’t need to have an extravagant, over the top kind of celebration filled with comings and goings and events and parties and gifts and fancy clothes. I like my quiet days and nights, I like curling up with books and movies and puppy dogs at my feet. In fact, I get giddy with excitement about all those things. I won’t apologize for that to anyone, especially not to myself.
My little tabletop Christmas tree with its golden bows and lights brightens a dark corner of my living room and makes me smile each time I pass by. I have a collection of angel ornaments and figurines placed carefully on the mantel and scattered around the rooms. We have a tall pine tree outside strung with strands of big, colorful lights.
It is enough. In fact, it’s beautiful.
Because if we expect material things and events or even the behavior of other people to fulfill our hopes and dreams for the holidays – and for the rest of life – than we will always be disappointed. The kind of spiritual satisfaction each one of us longs for never comes from anywhere but within.
Adjust your expectations. Don’t be plagued by the worries of what might come or disheartened by what might have been. Let memories of holidays past warm your heart rather than allowing them to hurt it. Discover the beauty in everything you already have – your family, your pets, your home, the world around you. It is all there if you allow yourself to see it.
And it will be enough.
If you’re considering doing any Christmas shopping today, you might want to read my post at All Things Girl. I’ve been thinking “outside the box” in terms of my gifting options this year, especially for my friends who are writers, musicians, and artists.
And speaking of All Things Girl, you can find me over there quite often these days, where I’m hosting a “digital salon” every other Sunday, a book club, and sharing my reflections on books and the reading life. Plus there are always great interviews, and articles to enhance your Life in General.
I hope you’ll drop by. You’re welcome any time.
One year when Brian was about six years old, a friend gave him an Advent Calendar. Printed on a background of dark blue designed to resemble the moonlit sky, it was a picture of a colorful gingerbread house trimmed with fluffy white frosting and sprinkled with candy canes, festooned with lights and garlands. Behind each window and door, under every candy ornament and festive decoration, was a picture or a saying or a snippet of poem. The idea was that the child could open one door every day in the four weeks leading up to The Big Day, and thus stave off a bit of the excited anticipation that can completely derail small children from their daily routines.
It didn’t work that well with my son. Maybe he was too old for it at the time, or it simply wasn’t exciting enough to hold his interest. After the third or fourth day, those tiny cardboard windows weren’t enough diversion from his perseveration about the Hot Wheels cars or Lego playsets that might (or might not) be his on Christmas morning.
This year I found myself more excited than usual about preparations for Christmas. Perhaps in the darkness of grief, I was more eager than usual to shed light on the dark corners of life. As I rummaged through the bags and boxes of beloved Christmas decorations I found myself smiling at each and every one. The paper machie angel my high school students gave me the year they nicknamed me “Angel of the Keys,” stands sentinel in her familiar place on the corner of the piano. A wicker basket trimmed with pine cones, ribbons and bells that my son made in middle school sits on the counter waiting to be filled with bright colored Christmas cards and letters from friends. Large, egg shaped colored lights have been wrapped around the tall pine tree on the corner of our yard, beckoning me home when I’m out after dark as I wend my way down the shadowy street. The huge lighted wreath that hung for many years on the front of our old house on MacArthur Street now shines just as brightly here on Brookwood Court.
It is in these early days of the season, these Advent Days when we’re lying in wait for something wonderful to come, that I find the most pleasure. It’s when my expectations for The Big Event to come haven’t yet been tarnished or shattered by the reality of life in the real world. It’s when every day still holds a surprise, and I still have the kind of excitement about them that the Advent Calendar was supposed to engender for my little boy. Each night when I take Magic and Molly outside for their last potty trip of the day, I stand in the driveway and bask in the reflected glow of those lights, grateful for the blessings of the day gone by, hopeful about the joys tomorrow might bring.
Brian used to ask us “Do you think I’ll get the (Hot Wheels, Lego’s, bicycle, book, video game) I asked for? Do you?”
My reply was always “You’ll have to wait and see.”
Of course, the waiting is the hardest part.
But the advantage to waiting is the time in between, the time to rest, reflect, the time to hope and dream. While we still have those hopes, the dreams are still alive and we can nourish them in our imaginations. Perhaps we can even find ways to make them come true.
My wish for you during this Advent season, is that you’ll take the time to enjoy opening all the doors of these days leading up to Christmas and that you’ll find the answers to fulfilling your hopes and dreams behind each one.
Long before Ann Patchett’s imaginative novels (Patron Saint of Liars, Bel Canto, State of Wonder) were bestsellers, she was making a living as a writer – but as a writer of nonfiction for magazines. Patchett cut her writing teeth as a journalist/essayist in the 1970’s, beginning with a book review for Seventeen magazine (for which she was paid $250). She spent eight years writing almost exclusively for Seventeen, until she herself was thirty years old when she moved on to “grown up” publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and Gourmet.
While she was writing freelance articles, Patchett was honing her craft as a fiction writer, with short stories and eventually novels. She credits her training in journalism – the intense editing, the research, the deadlines – with teaching her the kind of skills and endurance necessary to persevere as a novelist. “All those years of writing articles…made me a workhouse, and that in turn was a skill I brought back to my novels.”
And while Patchett started writing nonfiction as a way to literally support her fiction writing (“The tricky thing about being a writer or any kind of artist is that in addition to marking art you also have to make a living”) she was surprised to find her work as a journalist supporting her fiction in other ways as well. When she was working on Bel Canto, her novel about an opera singer, the editors at Gourmet magazine sent her to Italy on assignment to write an article about famous opera houses. Later, they fronted a trip into the Peruvian jungle while she was working on State of Wonder, her book about scientists in the Amazon. In fact, there have been so many benefits to this “day job” of nonfiction writing that even when her novels were successful enough to provide a living wage, Patchett has continued to write nonfiction, just more selectively than when it was the mainstay of her livelihood.
This is the Story of Happy Marriage collects a variety of Patchett’s essays and articles into one volume. It’s an interesting look at her life through essays that are well written and evocative of the writers time, place, and personality. We learn about her childhood, her love for her grandmother, her first marriage and divorce. We meet her dog Rosy as a puppy and then, 16 years later, as Patchett says goodbye to this beloved pet. We cheer her on when she writes about the success of her new bookstore in Nashville.
And we hear The Story of a Happy Marriage, with her husband Karl. “I can tell you how I came to have a happy marriage,” Patchett writes in the title essay, “but I’m not so sure my results can be reproduced. I continue to think back to (my friend) Edra, standing in that swimming pool on a bright day in summer. ‘Does he make you a better person?’ was what she asked me, and I want to tell her, Yes, with the full force of his life, with the example of his kindness and vigilance, his good sense and equanimity, me makes me a better person. And that is what I aspire to be, better, and no, it really isn’t more complicated than that.”
This collection is an irresistible blend of memoir and journalism – the kind of writing I really love, probably because it’s the kind of writing toward which I have aspirations of my own. Whether you’re a fan of Patchett’s novels or not, these pieces form a portrait of a real life, lived with thoughtfulness, compassion, and love.
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book.
Holidays are the hardest, people say, especially the first holidays after the death of a family member. Even though I hadn’t spent a Thanksgiving with my Dad in 25 years, I still feel an extra pang of loneliness today. I recall how he loved the big turkey dinners my Grandmother prepared, how he and I would watch the Hudson’s parade together on Thanksgiving morning and what a treat it was to have him home in the daytime instead of working.
Gratitude is often felt but rarely expressed. There were so many things I appreciated about my father – his generosity, his unwavering support for everything I did (even when he had misgivings about it), they way he encouraged my interests in music and reading and writing, his unfailing good humor and playfulness that never faltered even after long hours of work. I learned a lot about being a parent from him – about having patience and letting your children follow their desires and make their own decisions. But, as often happens, I let the opportunity to thank him for those things pass me by.
As adults, we can look back at our parents’ lives and learn from them in entirely different ways. I am now approaching the age my father was when he and my mother got divorced and he started his “second act.” From my current vantage point, and I can see his reasoning a lot more clearly than I could when I was 30. Cliched as it is, I can see how he was longing for something new and exciting, how he felt as if life would soon pass him by and he needed to make the most of it. I can see the warning signs that he chose to ignore and instead speed through on the way to his exciting new beginning. I am grateful for that insight, even though it came at the price of our family.
There were years when we were at odds with one another, my Dad and I, years we lost touch completely. I am grateful, especially today, for the grace which led us to reestablish our relationship. Grateful for the times we spent together in the past few years – for the day he spent teaching me to play poker, for the time he talked for hours telling me stories about his youth that I’d never heard before. I’m proud of the way he fought to live, with a strength and determination that amazed all his doctors.
Because he died very suddenly, I didn’t have an opportunity to express my gratitude or say a real goodbye. I say it now, hoping somehow he listens, somehow he might know.
I am grateful.
“I can’t tell you how much I used to dread Thanksgiving,” my mother said yesterday as we headed out to the grocery store to do our shopping for the big dinner. ”My mother used to invite everybody over and then bitch about it for days. She made life miserable for me and Dad for weeks. “
I looked at her aghast. My childhood memories of Thanksgiving were pure happiness. I never sensed any tension or angst…all I recall were the wonderful aromas and tastes of my southern grandmother’s cuisine. The huge turkey, slowly roasting all day long in the oven (“Oh yes,” said my mother, “she woke us all up at the crack of dawn to get that turkey in the oven by 7:00 so it could cook all day long”), stuffed with the moist, savory dressing (“I had to search all over town for fresh sage to put in that stuffing”), and smothered in rich, brown gravy (“She wouldn’t let anybody else stir that gravy for fear it would be lumpy!”)
Well. Who knew? I was so tickled at the prospect of a house full of people, all my my favorite aunts and uncles with their interesting conversations, laughing and telling stories about family members I’d never seen. And all the while the day had been filled with aggravation for my mother.
Of course, 40 years later, I’m no stranger to the memory of aggravating holidays. When Jim and I married, it somehow evolved in our little family that his mother would prepare the Thanksgiving day dinner at our house. (The one they so graciously sold to us when we got married while they moved into a tiny apartment which was of course far too small to serve Thanksgiving dinner.) So every year she’d appear (at the crack of dawn so she could get the turkey in the oven) and then be puttering around in my kitchen all day, muttering about the way I arranged things or cleaned things or didn’t have the right kind of things.
However, if you were to ask my son, he might recall the times he stood on a tiny step-stool and helped Grandma prepare the turkey, watching intently as she cleaned out the cavity and tied the drumsticks together with twine. Or he might remember running into the kitchen each time the oven door opened, so he could hold the baster and squeeze hot pan drippings over the bird’s golden breast. He might not have had any inkling that his mother was in her bedroom, silently screaming.
All that’s left of those holidays are memories -for my son, who lives far away and is never home on Thanksgiving; for me, who has dinner with an ever diminishing number of people; and for my mother, who prepares the meal for the three of us in her own kitchen and in her own expert and individual way.
Thanksgiving is becoming more and more the forgotten holiday, crammed in between Halloween and Christmas which garner a lot more attention in this consumer driven society of ours. We’re even having our regular trash pickup on Thursday – as long as I’ve lived here, pickup was postponed until Friday on Thanksgiving week. I’m not sure I approve of that. I think the sanitation workers should have Thursday so they could enjoy dinner with their families and friends same as nearly everyone else.
Thanksgiving is a holiday built around emotions – of being grateful for family and friends, for health and happiness, and food on the table. It’s not about buying presents, or wearing costumes, or elaborate fireworks displays. It’s not even about concerts of beautiful music, or rooms of gorgeous decorations.
It’s simply about making memories, good or bad.
I hope you make some lovely ones this year.
(note: This post was originally published in November 2010.)
Early this morning, coffee in hand, I stood in front of the sliding doors that lead onto our deck and listened to the birds thronging happily around the feeder. One of the things I love most about our new house are all the different birds – who knew that moving eight miles down the road would put me in completely new ornithological territory. I’m learning to identify them now – the bright golden finch, cuddly tufted titmouse, chickadees and wrens – all scrabbling for territory on the perches. But when the red-bellied woodpecker makes his appearance, they hover reverently on the surrounding bushes, allowing him to sup in regal splendor.
Today, something caught my eye and directed my gaze upward into the soaring branches of an oak tree. Maybe it was the shimmer of that tree’s last golden leaves, or the piercing blue of winter sky. What might have been a passing glance turned into a stare of wide-eyed wonder. For every bird gathered around my feeder, there were at least a dozen flying in and out among the branches of that tree. I had to crane my neck to see them, those flecks of gold and brown as they swooped and dived in and among the uppermost branches. It struck me at once that they lived SO high in the sky, like high rise apartment dwellers, and must be constantly looking down on my, pitying me for my groundedness.
And I knew then that I’ve been walking through life with my head down, my eyes in the wrong place. There are entire other worlds to see if we just look up once in a while.
Direct your gaze and see the world differently.
I know I will be doing that more often after today.